From New World Encyclopedia

Al-Musta'in (d. 866) was the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad from 862 to 866. After the death of previous Caliph, al-Muntasir, the Turkish chiefs held a council to select his successor; they did not favor al-Mu'tazz or his brothers; so they elected him, another grandson of al-Mu'tasim. Al-Musta'in's short reign was marked by unrest, revolt, plot and counter plot as the Turkish Guard and Arab Muslims clashed over whose right it was to choose and control the caliphate. Forced to flee from the capital in 865 he had abdicated by 866 in favor of his younger brother, al-Mu'tazz, who, before the end of the year ordered his execution. During Al-Musta'in reign, the caliphate was in serious decline. Within a comparatively short period, it became a titular post as real political power passed to Sultans, who still formally acknowledged the caliph's supremacy, rather as Christian kings in Europe looked to the politically weaker Papacy for validation of their right to rule. Yet remarkably, the caliphate continued to exist until 1924.

Despite all the problems experienced during Al-Musta'in reign and that of his successor, the Caliphate had acquired a mystique and a value that enabled it not merely to survive but to fulfill an important function. It was too symbolic of Muslim unity to become redundant. Even stripped of real power, the caliphate still represented the oneness of the ummah. This inspired Muslims to believe that unity and solidarity is God's plan, ultimately not only for Muslims but for all people. At its best, the caliphate was an attempt to create a single, God-fearing community of all mankind. To a degree, it sometimes succeeded. Al-Musta'in made no contribution at all to this success but he was a caliph. As such, he has a place in the history of an important institution, one that had seen better days but which would continue to function for many more centuries.


When al-Muntasir died, the Turkish Guard took it into their hands to choose his successor. Instead of choosing one of al-Muntasir's brothers, they chose a grandson of al-Mu'tasim. They had helped al-Muntasir to the throne because they feared that his father, whom they assassinated, was revoking their privileges. Presumably, they chose Al-Musta'in because they thought he would be pliant and easy to control. However, hadith linked the caliphate with the Quraysh clan, Muhammad's own and although leader of all Muslims, Arab Muslims considered that the choice of a successor was their prerogative. Al-Mu'tazz, the younger brother, was imprisoned to prevent him from challenging for the caliphate.

A paternal uncle of Al-Musta'in was appointed governor of Iraq but several senior appointment went to the Tahirid family, including Mecca and Medina. Their Persian origin also sparked resentment among Arab Muslims.

Arab Unrest

The Arabs and western troops from Baghdad, displeased at the choice and by the fact that the Turkish Guards, first appointed by Al-Mu'tasim, had chosen the caliph, attacked the assembly, broke open the prison and plundered the armory. They were then counter attacked by the Turkish and Berber soldiers. A fierce fight followed, in which many fell.[1] The Turks won. Baghdad had yet to learn that the Caliphate no longer depended on Arabian choice, but had passed into other hands.

The governor of Baghdad persuaded the city to submit, and the succession was thereafter acknowledged throughout the land. Al-Mu'tazz and his brother, threatened by the troops, resigned their title to succeed, and were then, by way of protection, kept in confinement. On a second outbreak in their favor, the Turks would have put them both to death, but the Vazir interposed and saved their lives, for which act of mercy, his property was seized by the Turkish soldiers, and himself banished to Crete. In fact, both at home and abroad, the caliphate was now under Turkish control.

In 863, the Muslim campaign against the Byzantine Empire was singularly unfortunate. For the last fifty years, "the balance of war" had favored the Muslims.[1] Two whole corps in Armenia and Asia Minor, some 3,000 strong, with their leaders, were killed. News of this drove Baghdad wild. The cry for revenge through the streets. People blamed the Turks for bringing disaster on the faith, for murdering their Caliphs and setting up others at their pleasure.

With such cries, the city rose in uproar; the prisons were broken and the bridges burned. Baghdad could no longer dictate to its rulers; it could only riot. The desire for revenge, though, was strong enough to draw men from surrounding provinces , who flocked as volunteers to fight against the Christian power. The Turks, for their part, were disinterested, as was the Caliph.[2]

Flight from Samarra

In 865, the end for al-Musta'in was at hand. Besieged in the palace, he had no choice but to flee. With two of the Turkish leaders, he left Samarra, then the capital, on a boat to East Baghdad. The Turks wanted him to return to the palace, and sent a party after him to persuade him to do so. The Caliph refused. A heated exchange began between the two sides. In the heat of this, one of the Turkish speakers received a blow, which was interpreted as an insult. Returning to Samarra, the Turks released al-Mu'tazz from his confinement and saluted him as Caliph. Within a few weeks, his brother Abu Ahmed, with 50,000 Turks and 2,000 Berbers, was besieging Baghdad. This lasted for the rest of 865.


At the beginning of 866, driven to extremes by plots and by treachery all around, and still under siege from Abu Ahmed, al-Musta'in was induced by alternate threats and promises to abdicate in favor of al-Mu'tazz. Al-Musta'in was reluctant to surrender what he saw as his right to the caliphate. He was advised to give up the right that had already killed his father and could soon kill him too.[3] The terms, which included release from the oath given to his son, said that he would be allowed to live at Medina with sufficient income. Tabari reports a dream in which his father appeared to him, rebuked him for his wrongful death and predicted that Al-Musta'in did not have long to life.[4] Once the conditions had been signed, the Turkish Commander received the ministers and courtiers of al-Musta'in, assuring them that he had done what he had for the best in order to stop further bloodshed. He then sent them to Samarra to pay homage to the new Caliph, who ratified the terms and took possession of Baghdad. This was in early 252 AH (866 C.E.). He also sent al-Musta'in his mother and family from Samarra, but not until they had been stripped of everything they possessed. However, the people in Samarra pledged allegiance to the new caliph while those in Baghdad still recognized the old one.[5]


However, instead of finding refuge at Medina, al-Musta'in found himself detained in Baghdad. There he was put to death by the order of al-Mu'tazz. Carrying al-Musta'in's head to the Caliph, "Here," cried the executioner, "behold thy cousin's head!" "Lay it aside," answered the heartless al-Mu'tazz who was playing chess, "till I have finished the game." And then, having satisfied himself that it was really al-Musta'in's head, he commanded 500 pieces to be given to the assassin as his reward.[6]


The Turks could now taunt the Arabs with the words, "What use of Arabs now without the Prophet and angelic aid?"[7] The reference to "angels" is to the angels that, according to the Qur'an, had delivered the Muslim victory at Badr against a much larger enemy army.[8] Soon, the caliphate would be controlled by another non-Aran dynasty, the Persian Buuyid dynasty. One reason for caliphates decline was due to the uncertainty of succession. This easily enabled those who could use force and who, as were the Turkish guards, were physically close to the palace, to exercise control. In Roman Empire, the Praetorium Guard similarly has assumed a king-making role.

The issue of how to select a caliph was one that had caused discussion, dissent and debate from the beginning of the office. Each of the four rightly guided, or Patriarchal caliphs, had become caliph in a different way. Following the usurpation of the office by Muawiyah, the Shi'a split off recognizing only male descendants of Muhammad as the legitimate leader. Both the Umayyads and the Abbasids kept the caliphate within their family but succession was far from automatic. Even when one caliph nominated a successor, this did not prevent argument and rivalry or civil war.

Within less than a century of Al-Musta'in's troubled caliphate, the caliph was a figurehead, just as he had been. His successor, too, was a puppet-ruler. Real political power was exercised by others. Yet the caliphate, in one form or another, would survive until the beginning of the twentieth century. It was too symbolic of Muslim unity to become redundant; the caliphs found a way to survive, and to fulfill a useful function, by representing the oneness of the ummah, validating the rule of Sultans who still acknowledged their theoretical supremacy, just as Christian kings in Europe looked to the Papacy to validate their rule.

Even when, after 945, the caliphate became a titular, symbolic office, the Muslim world maintained a strong sense of unity, while the life experience of Muslims was similar regardless of where they lived. The legal system was more or less the same throughout the territory of which the caliph was, if only nominally, the head. At its best, the caliphate was an attempt to create a single, God-fearing community of all humankind. To a degree, it sometimes succeeded. Al-Muntasir probably did not contribute anything to this success due to the shortness of his reign but nor did he undermine the office so seriously that it came to an end, at least not for a very long time.

Born: ?; Died: 866
Sunni Islam titles
Preceded by:
Caliph of Islam
862 – 866
Succeeded by: Al-Mu'tazz


  1. 1.0 1.1 Muir (2000), 532.
  2. Muir (2000), 533.
  3. Tabari, and Kraemer (1989), 211.
  4. Tabari, and Kraemer (1989), 220.
  5. Tabarī, and Saliba (1985), 34.
  6. Muir (2000), 535.
  7. Muir (2000), 534.
  8. Qur'an 4:2.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bahramian, Ali, and Sadeq Sajjadi. 2009. "ʿAbbāsids." In Wilferd Madelung, and Farhad Daftary (eds.). Encyclopaedia Islamica. Leiden, NL: Brill. ISBN 9789004168602.
  • Muir, William. 1924. The Caliphate: Its Rise, Decline and fall: From Orig. Sources. Edinburgh, UK: Grant. Retrieved February 24, 2009.
  • Muir, William. 2000. The Caliphate: Its Rise, Decline, and Fall. London, UK: Routledge. ISBN 9780415209014.
  • Ṭabarī, and George Saliba. 1985. The Crisis of the ʻAbbāsid Caliphate. SUNY series in Near Eastern studies. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. ISBN 9780873958837.
  • Ṭabarī, and Joel L. Kraemer. 1989. Incipient Decline. SUNY series in Near Eastern studies. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. ISBN 9780887068744.


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